A DIY Reprogrammable Synthesizer


The idea for this project was conceived in September 2016. Over the past couple of years I have been slowly gravitating towards the field of DIY electronics and self-built instruments. I have tried to get involved in the scene a few times previously, resulting in false starts and a couple of unfinished projects. I started to feel frustrated with the field as I couldn't find a documented build that was simple enough for someone with my limited technical skills to complete. I also required the finished product to have enough depth and functionality that I could actually incorporate it into my practice.

This all happened to coincide with me choosing a topic for the Creative Research Project I had to complete in the final year of my BA. I felt like this was a good opportunity for me to make a real attempt at getting involved in the field, so I decided to undertake research into the DIY electronic instrument community whilst simultaneously attempting to create my own well-documented instrument that met my criteria.

The Instrument

Pictured above is how the final version of my instrument turned out. The design was released as a step by step tutorial that you can view here on instructables. The components for the build should only cost you somewhere in the region of £15 and it is a suitable build for beginners. This tutorial was released with two sets of firmware that you can upload to the synthesizer's microprocessor giving you two completely different sound engines. The small set of controls means that these sound engines are fairly limited but they are still surprisingly musical and their simplicity makes them easy for others to understand and modify.

The concept for this instrument was to create something that could easily be expanded upon and modified by people like myself. I feel like a big barrier to this is having to physically disassemble the unit or to start building again from scratch with the modifications planned out in advance. The instrument I have designed only needs to be plugged into a computer for the user to begin experimenting. Hopefully this will encourage users to start creating their own variations.

Have a look below for some short video demonstrations of me using it.

Demo: Subtractive Engine from Gabriel Davison on Vimeo.

This video shows me using the subtractive synthesizer engine that I designed. It has a low pass filter along with two oscillators and a sub-oscillator. When the button is held down the range of all the controls are drastically increased.

Demo: WavePacket Engine from Gabriel Davison on Vimeo.

This second video shows me using the WavePacket synthesis engine. With this loaded your Arduino will be operating at close to maximum capacity leading to interesting and unpredictable glitches.

The Music

As part of the project I wanted to experience what it is like to compose using an instrument that I had designed and built from the ground up to see how this might differ from my normal compositional process. I limited myself to only using my two synthesizer engines and a small selection of samples. I want the piece to be listened to as a whole but I am distributing it in three separate tracks. Track 'I' uses predominantly the Subtractive engine, track 'II' the Wave Packet engine and track 'I+II' uses them both together. It can be downloaded and streamed for free below or on bandcamp.

If you have any questions about this project or would like some more information then please don't hesitate to contact me at mail(at)gabrieldavison(dot)me(dot)uk